Religion provides people with meaning and purpose in life, reinforces social cohesion and stability, serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change. Religions differ greatly in their beliefs, practices, and goals, but most share certain features. These include a sense of the supernatural, a belief in something greater than the self, and a set of values that guides moral behavior.
Most religions also provide a system of salvation in one form or another, whether that means reaching heaven after death (as in Christianity) or escaping from the cycle of suffering and rebirth in Buddhism. Moreover, almost all religions incorporate some combination of sacred texts, holy places, religious rituals, and spiritual practices that give believers a sense of community and identity.
While the term “religion” is often used in a pejorative sense, it is still a meaningful category that plays an important role in many people’s lives. In the United States, for example, 47% of adults belong to a religion, and in many ways, the way they think about and practice their faith shapes their lives. Psychologists have proposed various theories of why people believe in religion, including parental and cultural influences, the desire to feel a sense of belonging, and the human need for a higher power.
The academic study of religion has long involved debate over the best definition to use for this concept. Some scholars take a monothetic approach, in which any belief is considered a religion if it meets certain criteria. This approach allows for the inclusion of beliefs that are not widely held, such as Buddhism or capitalism, but is criticized by those who wish to avoid treating a belief as irrelevant to the concept.
In contrast, others have taken a polythetic approach to the question of religion. This approach, which was popularized by Rodney Needham in the late 1970s, defines a religion as any set of beliefs and behaviors that gives people a sense of direction and purpose in their lives. This allows for the inclusion of a variety of behaviors and beliefs, from astrology to gardening. In addition, the polythetic definition is not evaluated in terms of whether it is true or false, as in a lexical definition; rather, it is assessed by its functional value.
Some scholars have gone a step further and rejected any notion of “thing-hood” for the concept of religion. They argue that the fact that definitions of religion shift over time reveals that this concept is not an unproblematic part of human culture, but instead was invented at a particular point in history for particular purposes by specific people and then imposed on everyone else.
Other critics of polythetic approaches have argued that any belief can be regarded as a religion if it provides people with a sense of direction and purpose in their life. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the world’s people are religious and this is not likely to change anytime soon.